Archive for February 2019

Freediving in Ireland

Taking the oxygen-free plunge

Lifeguards at public swimming pools don’t like it when you disregard the signs that say “Walk, Don’t Run!” But they like it even less when you don’t move at all. As a lifeguard is scanning the pool, the last thing they want to see is a body floating face-down and motionless in the water. I remember getting yelled at for doing exactly that when I was about 10 or 12 years old. I couldn’t understand what the problem was. I wasn’t bothering anyone, I was just enjoying the sensation of holding my breath, floating, and staring at the bottom of the pool. But the lifeguard reprimanded me: “You have to keep moving! Otherwise I won’t know if you have drowned.” I thought that was unfair, because kicking around in the water isn’t as relaxing or serene as just floating there, but ever since then, as a courtesy to those who could not discern my state of consciousness from a distance, I have refrained from floating face-down.

Little did I realize that what I was doing would soon be a major competitive sport.

Kicking the Breathing Habit

Serious breath-holders would call what I was doing Static Apnea—just one of several categories of the sport of freediving. The current world record for Static Apnea is held by Serbian diver Branko Petrović, who floated in a swimming pool while holding his breath for eleven minutes and fifty-four seconds. That is, if I may say so (and pardon the pun), an unfathomably long time. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Freediving is all about pushing the limits of physical and mental endurance, defying common sense all the way.

Freediving is the name for a class of activities that involve holding one’s breath underwater for an extended period of time. In its simplest form, freediving is a low-tech alternative to recreational scuba diving. Although freedivers can’t stay submerged as long as divers who use tanks and regulators, they can move much more quickly and freely without the drag caused by the equipment. It’s a quieter experience too, and with fewer bubbles there’s less chance of scaring off fish. The only equipment required is a mask, wetsuit, and extra-long fins, making it a less expensive pastime than scuba diving as well.

The Length and the Breath

But when you start talking about competitive freediving, it begins to sound like a sport that could only be appreciated by someone whose brain had been deprived of oxygen a bit too long. Static Apnea is all well and good, but serious freedivers consider that just the first step. Dynamic Apnea ups the ante by requiring the diver to swim horizontally underwater; the idea is to cover as much distance as possible without taking a breath. Separate categories exist for divers using fins and those without. But then things start getting really interesting. In the other major forms of freediving, a rope (with markings to indicate depth) is dropped to the sea floor, and the objective is to follow the rope as deep as possible before returning to the surface. In a Constant Ballast dive, divers must descend and ascend under their own power; they can optionally use a weight to help them descend but they must carry the same weight on the way back up. Free Immersion is similar, except that the diver can pull on the rope to assist in the descent and ascent. Then there’s the Variable Ballast dive, in which a weighted sled takes the diver farther down into the water; the diver then leaves the sled to ascend under his or her own power. If that’s not challenging enough, a No Limits dive uses the same weighted sled to go even deeper, at which point the diver inflates a lift bag to facilitate a speedy ascent.

Austrian diver Herbert Nitsch currently holds the world record for No Limits free diving, generally considered the most challenging category. On June 14, 2007, he made a record No Limits dive of 214m (702 feet). But freediving is intensely competitive, and records are set and broken with astonishing frequency. The endless push to go deeper and longer is, not surprisingly, very risky, even for extremely well-trained divers. In October 2002, world-renowned freediver Audry Mestre died in an attempt to break the record at the time with a dive of 170 meters. A combination of equipment malfunction and human error prevented her from ascending fast enough, despite the numerous safety measures that are always taken during dives of this sort. Similarly, in November 2013, Nicholas Mevoli from New York died in an attempt to break the Constant Ballast Without Fins record. But these tragedies seem to have had a galvanizing effect on the freediving community, inspiring them to push themselves even further as a tribute to their lost comrades.

If you think about other mammals that hold their breath to make extended dives—whales, seals, and sea lions—freediving doesn’t sound all that crazy. Human physiology is quite a bit different, but research has shown that with training, almost anyone can develop the ability to hold their breath for three or four minutes. Still, there’s a big difference between holding your breath on the surface of a nice, safe swimming pool and doing the same thing under hundreds of meters of water. That requires stamina, guts, and probably a little insanity.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on July 30, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on March 22, 2005.

Image credit: Simukas771 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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A chocolate soufflé

I can count on one hand the number of soufflés I’ve eaten in my life, and still have some fingers left over. But I did eat one as recently as last week, and I have to say, it was heavenly. It was a mocha soufflé, so although it contained chocolate it wasn’t precisely what one should consume on National Chocolate Soufflé Day. The thing about soufflés is, they take a while to prepare and require some significant culinary skill. In my opinion—and I’m speaking here as someone who knows his way around a kitchen—they’re best left to the pros. But whether you make your own or let a chef do the honors, today’s the day to enjoy the light, airy, puffed-up goodness of a chocolate soufflé.

Image credit: Pxhere


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Pitcairn Island

Haven for homeless mutineers

The story of the mutinous crew of the British navy vessel HMS Bounty has remained a popular theme in books and movies ever since it occurred in 1789. Four major films have been made with the mutiny as their inspiration, featuring such acting heavyweights as Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, and Anthony Hopkins; one version of the film earned a Best Picture Oscar. There is a good reason for the story’s popularity: the sequence of events ending with the setting adrift of the ship’s captain, William Bligh, along with 18 of his men, in the middle of the Pacific, is inherently dramatic and fascinating.

The story of what happened to both the mutineers and those forced overboard may be paid less attention, but is equally fascinating. Captain Bligh, with the aid of only a sextant and pocket watch, successfully navigated the small boat to the Tongan island of Tofua, and then on to the island of Timor, a journey that took over 47 days and covered over 3,618 nautical miles (6710km) by Bligh’s reckoning. Only one of those set adrift with Bligh did not survive the voyage; a crewman was killed by the inhabitants of Tofua when the group landed there.

The mutineers, led by master’s mate Fletcher Christian, initially sailed to the island of Tubuai, but being unable to successfully settle there, went back to Tahiti (whence the ship initially departed). Sixteen members of the crew disembarked at this point, while Christian and eight of the mutineers, along with six Tahitian men and twelve Tahitian women (who were reputedly kidnapped), set sail to find a new island where they could settle in peace.

Bounty on the Mutineers

Fearing capture, Christian’s crew bypassed the Fiji and Cook Islands, eventually landing on the then-uninhabited Pitcairn Island in January 1790. To prevent discovery of their whereabouts, the group ran the Bounty aground, and after stripping it of its supplies, burned and abandoned it in the island’s primary bay (now known as Bounty Bay). They established a settlement on the island, growing crops and raising livestock.

The island, named after the boy who sighted it during the 1767 expedition of the HMS Swallow, had once been home to other inhabitants (most likely from Polynesia), but was deserted when the mutineers arrived. Measuring 6 miles (about 10km) in circumference and 2.5 miles (4 km) in length, Pitcairn Island is part of a group of four islands (now collectively called the Pitcairn Islands) that proved an ideal hiding place for the mutineers, owing to its incredible isolation in the midst of the Pacific Ocean, about halfway between New Zealand and the Americas.

The early community on Pitcairn experienced considerable violence among its members; clashes between the Tahitian men and the mutineers led to the deaths of all but four of the men by 1794, and by 1800, due to further violence and poor health, only one man remained alive. This man, an erstwhile mutineer named John Adams, became the leader of the settlement—now numbering 34 (counting 10 women and 23 children)—and oversaw its development into a viable and thriving entity. The group’s first contact with the outside world came with the arrival in 1808 of an American ship, but it was not until 1814 that Pitcairn became known to the wider world, when two British ships, the Briton and Tagus, landed on the island.

Surprisingly, Adams was not arrested by the British commanders on board these ships, but instead helped to establish a new relationship between Pitcairn and Britain. This relationship was formalized in 1838, when a constitution for the Island was created (which included the right of female suffrage 80 years before it was adopted in Britain), and was further enhanced when Pitcairn became a British settlement under the British Settlements Act of 1887.

Throughout the 19th century, overpopulation and a lack of resources were constant problems for the islanders, leading to an exodus to Tahiti in 1831, which was reversed later that year, and a further resettlement to Norfolk Island, a former British penal colony, in 1856. This time the move was successful; the islanders became prosperous and permanently settled in their new home. However, a small group of former Pitcairn residents decided to return two years later, in 1858, and they are the ancestors of those who live on the island today.

Giving it Their Own Stamp

Although in 1937 the island’s population reached a high point of 233, currently there are about 50 residents on the island (most of them bearing the surnames of their mutineer ancestors). There is an initiative underway to attract more residents to the island, but it has not been successful. Pitcairn does not have an airport, and ships visit on an infrequent basis, but in recent years there have been more efforts to draw tourists to the island to generate much-needed revenue for the community.

An earlier attempt to support the local economy began in 1940, with the issuance of the first Pitcairn postage stamps. Now administered by the Pitcairn Islands Philatelic Bureau (headquartered in New Zealand), Pitcairn issues six stamp series each year, which are prized by avid philatelists. Another, more recent, economic initiative undertaken by the islanders is the cultivation of honey, flavored by the Mango, Lata, Passion Flower, Guava, and Roseapple flowers found on the island.

In addition to its economic woes, Pitcairn has faced social problems in recent years. In 2004, the island came under intense media scrutiny as seven male residents (including the mayor) were put on trial facing 55 charges of sexual offenses against young girls. Six of the men, including the mayor, were eventually convicted on a total of 35 of the charges, and six other men, former residents of Pitcairn, also went on trial in 2005 in New Zealand. These trials caused major upheaval in the community, since almost all of the adult male population was implicated in them. Some residents felt disheartened by the scandal, fearing that the island’s fate would be crippled by it, while others saw cause for optimism in the necessary rebuilding of the power structure on the island.

This is not the first time Pitcairn has faced violence and lawlessness; from its inception the settlement has had to deal with the consequences of such actions. While to most people the mutiny on the Bounty remains an entertaining story from the past, for the residents of Pitcairn Island it is part of their daily reality, and has shaped the course of their lives and those of their ancestors.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on December 4, 2006.

Image credit: NOAA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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Polar bears

Polar Bears International has declared February 27 to be International Polar Bear Day, to call attention to the rapidly shrinking habitat of polar bears, which is due to the loss of sea ice caused by global climate change. (Although the occasional polar bear has been known to show up on a tropical island and hunt human castaways, that’s very much the exception.) Do your part today to support polar bear conservation, which might include taking steps to lower your own carbon footprint or donating to an organization that works to protect polar bears.

Image credit: Max Pixel


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A bookstore in Hay-on-Wye

The Town of Books

As anyone who knows me can attest, I am a sucker for books. I’ve had my nose perpetually stuck in a book for as long as I can remember (although nowadays I also do a lot of reading on electronic devices), and my house is stuffed full of books. I’m rarely tempted to spend serious money on clothes or jewelry, but I’m perpetually tempted whenever I step into a bookstore, and it takes great discipline not to buy every book I see. Thus it gives me great joy to think about a locale where my bibliomania would not seem out of place: the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, home to 1500 inhabitants and millions of books.

Castle Rocked

Hay-on-Wye, also known by its Welsh name Y Gelli (“The Grove”), lies on the border between Wales and England, and is about halfway between the English cities of Bristol and Birmingham. Its English name is derived from the Norman word for an enclosed field (“hay” or “haie”) and from its setting on the banks of the River Wye.

Earlier on in its thousand-year history, the town was the scene of immense political upheaval owing to its strategic location between Wales and England. The history of the castle at its center illustrates how tumultuous those times were. Built in 1200 CE by the local ruler, William de Breos II, Hay Castle replaced an older, smaller castle. After displeasing King John of England, William was forced to flee to France in 1211, and his wife and son were imprisoned.

In 1231, the castle was burned by a Welsh prince, but was rebuilt by Henry III around 1233 and returned to the control of the Breos family. The Earl of Leicester, Simon de Montfort, attacked the castle in 1265 in response to local opposition to the king. In 1322, the English king Edward II again captured the castle from its rulers at the time. And during the Welsh rebellion of the late 14th century, led by nationalist leader Owain Glyndŵr, the castle was nearly destroyed by fire.

The castle had various owners over the following centuries, including the local church, which used it as a vicar’s residence during the Victorian era. In 1971, a resident of Hay-on-Wye, Richard Booth, purchased the property and created a bookstore within its walls.

Buy the Book

Creating a bookstore was nothing new to Richard Booth, who first began selling books in Hay-on-Wye in 1961. Convinced that the presence of many bookstores in the town would draw in tourists and gain attention for Hay, he converted an old cinema into the Cinema Bookshop, and encouraged other businesspeople to open stores as well. He eventually sold the Cinema Bookshop, and opened Richard Booth’s Bookshop in the old town firehouse, which has become a local institution since then, although Booth sold this store in 2005 and opened yet another bookstore.

With the example set by Richard Booth, many other secondhand and antiquarian booksellers made their home base in Hay-on-Wye, and by the end of the 1970s, the town became the world’s first “book town” with an estimated one million books in stock. The book town concept has since spread to many other countries, and although the number of bookstores in Hay-on-Wye has recently declined slightly, there are still a mind-boggling number of stores for such a small town. According to the town’s official website, there are now 19 bookstores (some of which encompass multiple bookselling businesses) serving a population of 1500, which is an incredible ratio of residents to book shops. But because Richard Booth’s vision of the town as an international center of bookselling has been realized, locals now share these stores with the approximately 500,000 visitors it receives each year.

Writers Bloc

The highest concentration of visitors descends on the town during the last few weeks of May for an event that has become world renowned: The Hay Festival. Launched in 1988 by Peter Florence and now attracting thousands of attendees annually (273,000 tickets were sold in 2018), this literary festival has drawn famous writers such as Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, John Updike, and Don DeLillo, among many others, to give readings and conduct book signings for the assembled crowd. The festival has become so popular that it has spawned sister festivals around the world, and has inspired HowTheLightGetsIn, a music and philosophy festival that runs concurrently with a portion of the Hay Festival.

It’s not surprising that a town full of books has become the setting for a major literary festival; it holds out the promise of a physical location for something that usually only exists in the mind: a community of those who love the written word. I count myself in that number, and hope some day to have that same experience, whether in a small Welsh town or in another place where readers and writers gather to celebrate the joy of books.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on November 11, 2006.

Image credit: Aloys5268 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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